Premier League’s solidarity threatened like never before
Football’s power-brokers are pursuing plans that may encourage the richest clubs to put themselves first
Elite clubs will question why they need to support entities who cannot support themselves
‘It’s not science fiction” protested Gianni Infantino, the Fifa president, as he discussed the latest outbreak of blue-sky thinking at his Swiss institute for bad ideas: this time rearranging the football calendar into blocks of single competitions.
In an interview this month, modestly scheduled to mark his 50th birthday, he proposed playing all the domestic league games globally at the same time, then cross-border club football and finally international football. All of them assigned a window of opportunity to accomplish what needed to be done before the game moved on to the next show. So out would go the old tradition of the integration of the season between league, cup, continental competition and internationals.
If it sounds rather like the football equivalent of arranging one’s bookshelves according to the colour of the spines, then bear in mind that in the chaos of this Covid era there is much up for grabs and many prepared to grab it. The high-priest of the European super league, Andrea Agnelli, addressed his own constituency at the annual meeting of the European Club Association this month, painting a very bleak picture of football’s finances, and projecting losses of €4billion (£3.66billion) over the season across Europe’s top 20 leagues.
This is fertile ground for the Juventus chairman, who would like to usher in his new expanded Champions League plan after 2024, when existing broadcast deals expire, as much as Infantino wishes to launch his expanded Fifa Club World Cup at the same time.
Agnelli spoke of “deep scars” in football’s financing and where there is uncertainty there is opportunity for those seeking to remake football their own way.
It has been a bad week for the Premier League and its more dysfunctional sibling the English Football League, with the Government’s new lockdown measures ruling out the return of fans to stadiums until March.
A long winter awaits and, as with the March suspension of the previous season, there is extraordinary pressure once again on the old fissures in the game, the rifts that ordinarily grind along at a glacial pace.
The proposed bail-out of the EFL by the
League, with the former pleading a £250million deficit, is one such issue that threatens the solidarity of the 20 clubs in the top division and their revenue-sharing model.
There will be many Premier League clubs who feel that handing money to some of the owners of EFL clubs is only one step removed, as sensible business strategies go, from investing in unicorn tears, moon-cheese or the goalscoring of Roberto Soldado. Once again it will cause those with the highest costs to question why they are tethered to a system that obliges them to support commercial entities who cannot support themselves.
The Premier League seems resigned to its EFL bail-out, and it is inevitable that even this uniquely corporate entity will be forced to acknowledge it must come to the rescue – albeit with conditions attached. But that also creates an opportunity for those who would seek to divide the league and especially target the top clubs who would prove so useful to wider European or global projects of the kind that Agnelli and Infantino have discussed.
Once again, the league’s solidarity is threatened by the demands being made of it and the question begs itself whether this collective endeavour, with all its imperfections, can be kept intact through another period of instability. The Daily Telegraph reports today that the biggest deficit in this pandemic, in terms of cash alone, belongs to Manchester United with Covid losses of almost £140million, followed by the rest of the notional big six. These are the same clubs that, in the past, have at least listened to the proposals of those who would carve up European and
world football to create a new consensus in favour of the wealthy, and one that has been enthusiastically pursued by Agnelli. Before there has been scepticism from the English game’s biggest clubs about compromising the commercial success of the Premier League for an alternative that is untried and so unpopular amongst their core support.
You have to wonder how they feel now, facing up to six months without the return of supporters to their own big stadiums. The expectation from government that the wealthiest clubs help the rest of the game reflects the public view and on the face of it sounds sensible, as those same clubs once again invest in big transfer fees and contracts. But that does not mean that their own finances are not stretched, or indeed that the clubs are happy to do so.
No one knows for sure what is coming in the spring of 2022 when the decisions are expected to be made as to how football looks post-2024.
Rather like the loneliest child in the class, Infantino inaugurated his own club in November 2019, what he has optimistically called the World Football Club Association.
Real Madrid appear to have joined and one can only assume that Infantino’s plans for a biennial Club World Cup in the prime summer slot of his new world calendar are the centrepiece.
Meanwhile, today’s Uefa executive committee meeting will feature a speech from the organisation’s president, Aleksander Ceferin, who desperately does not want to be remembered as the man who lost control of the Champions League.
He knows that he will be obliged to deliver a competition in the future that offers more games, more certainty around places and more money to the most powerful clubs in Europe.
If that is to be the case then the biggest Premier League clubs will need more space in their schedules to accommodate those fixtures. The fragile alliance of the 20 clubs is likely to be tested like never before over the next six months and only time will tell what those involved consider to be sacrosanct and what they say can be discarded.
Grandiose: Gianni Infantino has unique views on how to organise world football